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Standardized tests

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Most colleges require that students take the SAT or the ACT, and some require that students take SAT Subject Tests as well.

The significance of standardized tests in admissions

Scores on these exams have a very significant impact on college admissions prospects. Princeton University's admissions department reports that students who score between 2300 and 2400 on the SAT (out of 2400 total points) are over twice as likely to be admitted as students who score between 2100 and 2290. The students who have higher SAT scores will, on average, also have more impressive applications in other respects, so the difference in admissions rates can't be entirely attributed to SAT scores. Still, it suggests that that doing well on the SAT and ACT are very important for college admissions.

Preparing for the SAT and/or ACT

You can raise your SAT and/or ACT scores through judicious preparation. For example, the SAT tests knowledge of vocabulary words that are repeated year to year, and by learning these vocabulary words, you can answer more SAT questions correctly.

Books such as

have been very favorably reviewed on Amazon, and working through them plausibly boosts students' scores.

If you have difficulty staying motivated on your own, taking an SAT/ACT prep course or getting SAT/ACT tutoring may boost your scores. Aside from this consideration, it's unclear how much value taking SAT/ACT preparation courses add beyond working through the books above.

Preparing for SAT Subject Tests

Selective colleges often require that applicants take SAT Subject Tests. We give suggestions for how to prepare for these on our page on coursework. You can take an official practice test for a given subject by obtaining a copy of The Official Study Guide for ALL SAT Subject Tests.

SAT vs. ACT

It's been said that the SAT is more of a test of short-term memory (relative to the ACT), and the ACT more of a test of long-term memory. If the colleges that you'll be applying to accept either one, you should take the test that plays to your strengths. You can also take both tests.

How colleges assess standardized test scores

We spoke with admissions officers at the majority of top 20 ranked colleges about how they assess standardized test scores. The general picture of what they said is:

  • If an applicant has taken the SAT or the ACT multiple times, admissions officers consider only the applicant's highest scores.
  • If an applicant takes both the SAT and the ACT, he or she will be assessed based on which he or she does better on.
  • Admissions officers are generally indifferent as to which SAT Subject Tests an applicant takes, except that they prefer that the applicant not take an SAT Subject Test in his or her native language.
  • If an applicant takes more than the required number of SAT Subject Tests, admissions officers only look at the highest scores.